In October we were interviewed by Amy and Andrew of Our Big Fat Travel Adventure and were flattered and frankly astonished to have our travel tips and advice labelled as expert. They are heading into the world in a couple of months and it has been easy to compare their competent planning with our own gainful but stressed (Deirdre) and uselessly relaxed (me) preparations.
Amy’s research into visas, vaccinations and debit cards have all been passed off to Deirdre as my own. The accumulated brownie points were only lost in my complete failure so far to obtain any travel insurance.
We are headed to Southeast Asia in five days so I thought it would be an idea to compare our preparation for this trip with what we did when we were still new to taking long trips abroad.
I am making a concerted attempt to pack light this time. When we boarded our first flight to Lima over ten years ago we were already burdened by heavy bags as inexperience led us to take a wide array of fancy new items we didn’t really need. This time we know we won’t need to take our own mosquito nets, we know the sleeping bag will remain unused and they have shampoo abroad so there’s no need to take a year’s supply.
Compared to other travellers we see mentioning their luggage size in their blogs our bags are massive but this time if I think an item might come in handy but I don’t know specifically what for it is going to be left behind. That’s the theory anyway. Looking over my shoulder at the shortlisted items I have been steadily throwing in a bag every time I spot something that I think might be needed it is clear there is plenty of room for much more ruthlessness.
Where I know a weight saving will be made is with books. At one stage on our round the world trip I was carrying eight or nine books. These were a mixture of personal reading material, reference sources needed for work, guidebooks kept as a souvenir for regions we had been to and guidebooks for regions still to come. Though one, maybe two physical books will still be carried around I can now pack hundreds of books into our iPod touch. The same device also takes care of music – no need for CDs this time – while the invention and spread of wifi negates the need to keep buying DVDs for those days when we just want a night in with a movie.
As for clothes, I need a few new items anyway so will be buying a lot of things in Bangkok. Unless I want genuine fake designer brands our hometown is pretty woeful for clothes. I’m tempted to board the plane in a pair of underpants and a hoodie in anticipation and worry about getting the rest later.
Some of our vaccinations ran out last year and we need a few booster shots. I couldn’t tell you which ones but there is no need to worry about it right now. We know we can get these at our first destination pretty cheaply.
This lackadaisical attitude extends to malaria pills too. The first time we travelled in the developing world we shelled out £50 each for a course of tablets. I took one and gave up on them as nasty things before even getting on the plane. Despite nearly passing out in Sainsburys, Deirdre persevered for much longer but quit them after a month or so when more experienced travellers in Cusco pointed out there wasn’t any malaria at altitude.
We now subscribe to Travelfish’s attitude to malaria: “if you’re planning on stopping by just the main tourist hotspots, using repellent and a mosquito net, dressing sensibly and never sleeping naked in a swamp, then chances are you probably don’t need to take malarials.” That doesn’t mean we are complacent when it comes to malaria. We tend to follow the rules above and on first entering a new room all mossies are cleared out in a localised genocide and mosquito nets kept closed thereafter.
While they are by no means perfect, I do enjoy flicking through a guidebook and sketching out a rough and flexible outline of our route. There is great pleasure in reading about place B, looking at the map and judging its importance in relation to places A and C. Is it worth visiting? And if it is, is it worth a 300 mile detour? With a paper guidebook there is no searching through irrelevant results on Google and research can be refined at any time ad hoc, such as on the bus a couple of hours before arriving at a destination, without the need for an internet connection.
This time we do not have a guidebook (though I might pick up a second hand one in Bangkok). Instead we have used the internet to come up with a few advance ideas, bookmarking relevant pages or marking to read later on the iPod. While I have found some great information it is all over the place and I doubt will be so easy to find when needed.
A combination of redundancy payments, debt avoidance, savings and credit card abuse paid for our journey around the world in 2002/3. This time we are funding ourselves with our websites. Our income may be minimum wage in the UK but it should be enough to live on in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Back in the dark ages of the early noughties getting online involved internet cafes, wires and manually assigning TCP/IP protocols. Few other travellers carried laptops and bringing one into a cybercafé, as we sometimes called them then, could on occasion prompt angry hysterics from the café owner.
Now, we get a password and we are good to go. Wifi is common in hotel or hostel rooms and after a few days in town we have usually picked up enough passwords from bars, cafes and restaurants we have already visited to be able to quickly check email and social media on a handheld device each time we pass by.
Our first experience of Bangkok in February 2003 was of having nowhere to stay after arriving during Chinese New Year while a Red Hot Chilli Peppers gig almost led to us sleeping on the streets of Auckland. Other than these examples we had no major mishaps in not arranging accommodation in advance for the other 363 nights we stayed away that year.
We still like to be flexible but this time things are slightly different. We are trading our spare advertising for accommodation and this requires a little advance planning. Our hotel in Istanbul and our first hostel in Bangkok are already arranged.
Unlike on our RTW trip this time, as homeowners, we will have somewhere to come back to. When we leave the water and electricity will be switched off and today Deirdre will walk around town arranging for payment holidays for the phone, internet and satellite TV. Should we be away from home longer than six months we will start paying bills for these services without using them. We could cancel the phone but it took nine months for the state monopoly Turk Telecom to hook us up initially so this idea is unthinkable.
Despite the disadvantages outlined above, all this makes plugging back into life when we get back home so much easier. Normal life begins again on putting our backpacks on top of the wardrobe while with work we can hit the ground running once the phone and internet are reconnected.
Ten years ago, on returning from a year on the road we crashed with our families. While we were away they had looked after our possessions and the repercussions of staying too long while trying to find a new place to live are still felt in some of our family relationships today.
Overall we were probably better organised ten years ago then we are today. With two days to go until we fly to Istanbul and then onward to Bangkok there is still so much left to do but experience has taught us that plenty of things can be left until even beyond the last minute. As long as it isn’t our passports or bank cards, anything forgotten will at most be an inconvenience rather than a disaster.